I find that a lot of new composers who are interested in
writing for live performers get frustrated because they end up having to do a
lot of what I call “back-composition” in order to get a piece to performance.
In most cases, this happens because they use a digital medium – a DAW or
notation software – to create a work intended for performance by live
musicians, but don’t spend enough time at the beginning of the process thinking
about the individuals and ensembles who will ultimately perform the piece.
In my process, I like to put the musicians who will perform
what I’m writing on the stage of my imagination and hear and record what comes
out of them. Most of the time, this is a generic set of performers – a “Grade 3
Concert Band,” a “chamber orchestra,” etc., and I’m working within the
generally-known timbres/capabilities/limitations of that set of performers.
If I’m lucky, it’s a group of specific individuals I know well, and I’m working
from personal knowledge of them.
Either way, I need to have a lot of information about the
people sitting on my internal stage before I begin imagining new music for them
– or else I’m going to end up having to re-imagine a lot of material just when
I think I’m finished! For that reason, I think that the first, most important
question a composer needs to ask herself before beginning a new work is, “Who’s ultimately going to perform it?”
As I see it, there are three general answers to this question.
If you’re creating new music that will be performed by no
one – a digital sound file, in other words – then you don’t have to worry about conforming
your compositional imagination to the capabilities of human performers and
their instruments/voices. This is one of the reasons that composers have been
interested in the idea of “musical machines” for centuries – it’s the closest
they can get to a pure expression of the musical ideas they have inside their
own heads. You imagine the music, you perfect it in the DAW, you create the
sound file – bingo.
If you’re creating new music that will be performed by you,
and you alone, then you’re only concerned about your limitations as a
performer, and the limitations of the thing(s) you’re going to perform your new
music with, and you should know those pretty well already. If you’re a singer/guitarist creating
something for you and you alone to perform, then you can’t expect to perform a
work with notes higher than you can sing, or faster than you can play on
guitar, or a really prominent English horn line, etc.
If you’re creating new music that will be performed by
someone else, then you do have to worry about the capabilities of those others
as performers, and the capabilities of the things they’re going to perform with,
and you should be thinking about and working within those capabilities from the
beginning of your process, or else you’re going to be confronted with them
irritatingly at what you think should be the end of your process!
If you’re going to create music for someone else to perform
on instrument X, then you should have at least a basic understanding of
instrument X’s limitations – how high/low can it go? How loud/ soft can it go?
etc., preferably before you begin your process. If you’re going to create music
for a whole bunch of people to perform on a whole bunch of instruments or
voices (orchestra, band, chorus, etc.), then you need to have a basic
understanding of the capabilities of ALL those instruments or voices, and a
basic understanding of how they all relate to one another in that particular
ensemble, preferably before you begin your process.
I still refer to
orchestration books often to touch base with all this information. One of the
two best pieces of compositional advice I ever got came from the band composer
Robert Jager, who said “Buy an orchestration book, and don’t be afraid to look
in it!” The other came from my composition teacher Eugene Kurtz, who told me
“Own more than one orchestration book, and don’t be afraid to look in all of
In closing, I’ll say that, while I’ve found this idea of
“performed by no one/performed by me/ performed by others” helpful for thinking
about what I need to know before my process begins, I find it really useful for
thinking about how I need to communicate my compositional intentions to others
when they’re the ones converting my ideas into sound waves – in other words,
for digging into the entire issue of notation, notation software, etc. That’s
Also, while I began this post by talking about
composers who start acoustic works in digital media and end up frustrated, I
should say here that I use notation software throughout my compositional
process, starting at a relatively early stage of the process. HOWEVER, I don’t
rely on the software to tell me what I need to know about the acoustic media
I’m composing for, or how I should notate for them. I don’t let it dictate or
control my process, and you shouldn’t either! That discussion is coming as well